“Letting you cancel or magnify your world, they're like bionics for your ears.”
- Excellent sound quality
- Excellent noise cancellation
- Effective and customizable hearing enhancement
- Good call quality
- Good selection of ear tips
- No wireless charging
- No music EQ settings
- Big and bulky
True wireless earbuds have become something of a commodity in the last year or so. Rapid improvements in sound quality, wireless reliability, added features like active noise cancellation (ANC) and wireless charging — combined with falling prices — have made it a lot harder for any one model to stand out from the crowd.
That’s what makes the $399 Nuheara IQbuds2 Max so interesting. By incorporating hearing aid tech, they’re as much about listening to the world around you as they are about listening to your favorite tunes. Still, their high price is daunting, so let’s find out if what sets them apart is enough to justify the extra cash.
Within the responsibly designed, all-cardboard box, you’ll find the IQbuds2 Max sitting in their charging case, accompanied by a cloth carry bag, a MicroUSB charging cable, six sets of eartips, and paper documentation including a quick-start guide. Unlike every other set of wireless earbuds we’ve tried, the IQbuds2 Max do not come with eartips attached from the factory — you’ll need to choose and install a set to get started.
That sounds inconvenient, but it’s actually quite clever on Nuheara’s part. Most people stick with the default medium tips and forget to try the other sizes. With the IQbuds2 Max, that process of finding the right fit is baked into the unboxing process.
The IQbuds2 Max won’t win any beauty contests. Their basic, matte-black bodies are utilitarian, clearly designed to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. But despite their stealthy appearance, these are fairly chunky earbuds. They’re bigger than the Jabra Elite 85t, the Sennheiser CX 400BT, and the Amazon Echo Buds — three of the largest earbuds we’ve tested.
Big though they might be, they’re also solidly built. Nuheara might not have designed the IQbuds2 Max with ruggedness in mind but I think they’re going to survive non-water-related mishaps better than many other models. They have no official IPX rating for protection from water or dust, but Nuheara claims they’re sweat- and rain-resistant.
I’m a little surprised that at $399, Nuheara didn’t equip the case with wireless charging or USB-C, features that have shown up on earbuds costing less than $75. But Nuheara tells me that when the company was designing the IQbuds2 Max in 2018, they weren’t as much on the radar as they are now. Apparently, the next version will have both.
The IQbuds2 Max are big. Some folks may find this uncomfortable.
The earbuds easily snap into their charging sockets with a magnetic click, and an indicator light in front of each socket immediately confirms that they’re correctly seated and charging.
Getting them back out can be a little harder, but once you master the sideways-roll maneuver, it shouldn’t be a problem.
The IQbuds2 Max are big — there’s no getting around that. As a result, they create a very pronounced feeling of ear fullness when you’re wearing them. Some folks, especially those with smaller ears, may find this uncomfortable. The choice of eartips definitely helps, and I love that Nuheara has included three sizes of Comply memory foam tips as well as the standard silicone ones.
The upside to the buds’ larger size is that they make excellent contact with the entire concha, delivering a very secure fit. The IQbuds2 Max aren’t intended as workout buds, but they aren’t likely to work themselves loose if you take them running.
The IQbuds2 Max have responsive touch-sensitive controls, but like many touch controls, you need to make contact with the middle of the earbuds — taps on the edges won’t register. Each earbud has a single-, double-, and long-touch command, which can be customized using the IQBuds app for iOS and Android.
Unfortunately, Nuheara limits these options. For instance, the right earbud is the only one that can control the various hearing modes, including ANC. Some touch commands, like the single touch on the right earbud, can only be used for three functions: Turn ANC on/off, Turn ANC off and pause music, or do nothing at all. To be fair, given that you can’t use the IQbuds2 Max independently, this is not a big deal, plus it’s worth noting that you can select from a huge assortment of functions for the left earbud, including volume, play/pause, track skip forward/back, and voice assistant access.
Pick any bass-heavy track and you’ll hear it — the low-end has a luxurious weight to it.
The IQbuds2 Max are equipped with wear sensors and they can automatically pause and resume your music, but only when you remove/replace the left earbud. Doing the same with the right bud has no effect.
Bluetooth range is about average for a set of wireless earbuds. Indoors, I was able to move one floor away from my phone before the connection dropped, while outdoors it was closer to 50 feet.
The IQbuds2 Max are first and foremost intended as hearing assistive devices, but they are also superb for sound quality. They have a rich and warm tonality, with a bass response that is wonderfully resonant. Pick any bass-heavy track and you’ll hear it — from Billie Eilish’s bad guy to Hans Zimmer’s Time — the low-end has a luxurious weight to it. Better yet, that resonance doesn’t impair the mids or highs, which are both easily discernible.
Vocals come through with clarity and precision and the soundstage strikes a nice balance between width and intimacy. All of this is amazing when you consider the IQbuds2 Max only support the lowest throughput Bluetooth codec (SBC) on an iPhone (they support aptX on Android).
The only thing I wish Nuheara had included is the ability to adjust the EQ within the app.
Managing external sounds is the IQbuds2 Max’s secret sauce.
You’ll get the best sound quality when ANC is fully engaged, but even when using one of the many “world on” modes (more on these in a moment), the IQbuds2 Max deliver top-notch sound.
Managing external sounds is the IQbuds2 Max’s secret sauce. They give you an unprecedented level of control over what you hear, from absolute silence to focused amplification. But there are a number of aspects to how this works, so let’s take them one at a time.
When you first connect the IQbuds2 Max and fire up the IQBuds app, you’ll be invited to take a hearing test. Some wireless earbuds, like the Jabra Elite 85t, use a test to detect which frequencies you have trouble hearing, in order to enhance your music experience. The IQbuds2 Max take the opposite approach, using a similar test to determine which external sound frequencies need a boost.
The test takes about 10 minutes to complete and feeds you a series of tones at different frequencies and loudness levels. It does this for each ear. The result is a map of sorts that shows you where your hearing lacks sensitivity.
In my case, it said I was only missing a tiny amount of the highest frequencies, at the lowest volumes. I know this to be true because I get my hearing checked by an audiologist annually and that’s exactly what those professional tests revealed.
Once the test is complete, you can turn EarID on and off to see how it affects what you’re hearing. As you might expect, given my nearly perfect hearing, I couldn’t detect much of a difference.
The next step is to explore the app’s Locations. Think of them as sound enhancement presets for scenarios where you want to hear some or all of the outside world. The labels (home, office, restaurant, driving, street, workout, and plane) are self-explanatory. For each of these seven locations, you can keep the default settings, or you can customize them. You can also select up to four of the seven as favorites, which you can then cycle through using the right earbud — very handy.
The four sound enhancements are:
As the name suggests, the volume adjustment lets you boost or drop the amount of microphone amplification. Having trouble hearing overall? Turn it up. Feeling overwhelmed? Turn it down. The caveat is that as you turn the volume up, you’ll also hear more ambient “hiss” when there’s relative quiet around you.
This is also the place where you can choose to switch to ANC or turn all external sound processing off. If you choose ANC or “off,” all four sound enhancement settings are disabled (because their only purpose is to tweak incoming sounds).
SINC (Speech in Noise Control)
The SINC enhancement lets you decide to prioritize either ambient or speech sounds, or a mix of the two. The workout location, for example, puts an emphasis on ambient sounds to help you maintain better situational awareness while in a gym or running outside.
This enhancement gives you the option of filtering out specific frequencies. When using the plane location, lower frequencies are filtered out to help with the low drone of jet engines, so you can focus on the voices around you. Meanwhile, the office location turns World EQ off, so that you can hear all frequencies equally.
Perfect for one-on-one conversations in loud environments, Focus is a simple on/off setting. When it’s off, sounds from every direction are equally amplified. When it’s on, only the sounds directly in front of you get priority. The restaurant location is a classic example of when Focus would come in handy.
The IQbuds2 Max are incredible for noise cancellation.
As luck would have it, I’ve been testing the IQbuds2 Max during a pandemic. Local lockdowns have meant that I don’t have access to restaurants, planes, an office, or a gym, which has severely cramped my ability to test these hearing enhancements in the real-world places they’re meant for. But that hasn’t stopped me from using them at home, on the streets, and while grocery shopping, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how these earbuds perform.
Even though my hearing is considered very good, lately I have been having a harder time focusing on voices in busy environments. Using the SINC setting with an emphasis on speech, and with Focus turned on, I find I don’t have to concentrate nearly as much to separate voices from the background.
But even if you never use the hearing enhancements, the IQbuds2 Max are incredible for noise cancellation. Activating this feature with a touch of the right earbud is like dropping a cone of silence over your head. They’re better than the AirPods Pro and better than the Sony WF-1000XM3. I haven’t had a chance to compare them to the Bose QuietComfort Ear Buds, but I’d be shocked if the Bose were significantly better.
And thanks to their infinitely customizable Locations, the IQbuds2 Max win the award for best transparency in a set of true wireless earbuds.
Nuheara claims five hours of use between charges when you’re streaming music, or eight hours if you use them just for hearing enhancement. The charging case holds enough juice for three full recharges. In practice, I found that the earbuds dropped to about 15% battery level after six hours of mixed-use, which I think puts the IQbuds2 Max slightly under these claimed numbers. The earbuds charge fully in 90 minutes, but there is no quick-charge function.
Many true wireless earbuds end up compressing your voice, but the IQbuds2 Max deliver a far more natural sound.
It would have been great if Nuheara had upped these numbers a bit, but I think for most people the battery life is probably just fine.
The IQbuds2 Max do a very good job at preserving voice quality when on calls. Many true wireless earbuds end up compressing your voice, giving it a thin, talking-through-a-pipe sound, but the IQbuds2 Max deliver a far more natural sound.
They also do a decent job at canceling out competing noises like traffic. I can’t say how well they deal with windy conditions — my time with them was during some unusually calm winter weather — but I suspect that unless you’re trying to conduct a critical business call in the midst of 40 MPH gusts, they’ll do just fine.
Though their $399 price is a bit hard on the wallet, the IQbuds2 Max reward you with incredible sound and the ability to focus on (or ignore) as much of the outside world as you wish — a combo you won’t find in another set of true wireless earbuds at any price.
Is there a better alternative?
We’ve yet to come across a set of true wireless earbuds that possess the same feature set as the IQbuds2 Max, which means there really isn’t a true alternative.
But if the IQbuds2 Max’s hearing enhancements hold little value for you, you can spend less and get sound quality that’s just as good, with Sennheiser’s $300, Jabra’s $230 , Sony’s $230 , or Bose’s $280 — and these all offer very good or excellent ANC too.
How long will they last?
Backed with a one-year warranty from Nuheara, the IQbuds2 Max appear to be very well built from high-quality materials. The biggest question is how long the battery will last. Given their role as hearing enhancers, it’s conceivable that folks will want to wear them for many hours every day.
Should you buy them?
Yes. If you’ve ever wanted a personal audio device that can do double-duty as a hearing enhancer and a high-quality music companion, the IQbuds2 Max excel at both, making them highly versatile true wireless earbuds.
- Master & Dynamic MW08 Sport first impressions: Lighter weight, wireless charging
- LG’s new earbuds have a cool feature that improves call quality
- What is ANC? Active noise cancellation fully explained
- Sennheiser CX True Wireless review: Audiophile earbuds on a budget
- The best true wireless earbuds for 2021